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Bondone di Giotto (1266?-1337)

( Originally Published 1955 )



One of the greatest figures in the annals of Italian painting, Giotto was largely responsible for stylistic innovations that ushered in a new era in art history. He was born at Colle, in the Commune of Vespignano north of Florence, and lived in Florence during the greater part of his artistic career. In consequence of his renown numerous legends grew up concerning his beginnings, most of which are without foundation, but have been transmitted by the notoriously inaccurate Vasari. Tradition has it that he was the pupil of Cimabue, but there is little evidence for this. He early shows himself to be closely allied with the Roman school, and there can be little doubt that as a young man he was in contact with the art of Pietro Cavallini and the sculpture of the Pisani. Our knowledge of his life depends on a modest number of documents and a wealth of conflicting and often unverifiable statements by contemporary and later writers. In 1312 he was inscribed in the guild of doctors and apothecaries to which painters belonged in Florence. Acts of 1311, 1312, 1314, 1320, 1321, 1325 and 1326 reveal that during these years he lived in Florence in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella. There are records of his having worked in Naples for King Roberto between 1329 and 1332. In 1334 he was appointed chief architect of the cathedral of Florence, one of the greatest honors conferred upon him. Contemporary and later accounts tell us that Giotto was active in Rome, Naples, Avignon, Padua, Assisi, Rimini, Ravenna, and a number of other cities in Italy and France. He was probably at work in Rome around 1298-1300, where he is supposed to have painted a fresco in San Giovanni in Laterano, and mosaics and an altarpiece for St. Peter's (now lost). Of these, the "Navicella" mosaic now in the portico of St. Peter's is a work celebrated by tradition and universally ascribed to him, but has been so completely restored that it is of no value in determining Giotto's early style. The only other presumed early work has been a source of unending controversy: the scenes from the life of St. Francis in the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi. Recent scholarship is prone to deny any of these frescoes to the hand of Giotto, although there is undeniably a close relationship between them and Giotto's other acknowledged frescoes. His greatest extant monument, the fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel at Padua, was probably painted shortly after the consecration of the chapel in 1305. This work comprises thirty-eight scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna, the Virkin and Christ, in three rows on the side walls, and a Last Judgment on the entrance wall. Below the narrative scenes are personifications of the Virtues and Vices. Incidental decorations were probably executed by assistants, but Giotto undoubtedly planned the entire scheme and personally painted the large scenes and the Virtues and Vices. The frescoes are still in excellent condition; they reveal to the full Giotto's formal and narrative powers in his rendering of three-dimensional figures in convincing and natural action, with dramatic expression, composed in monumental groups sustained by landscape or architectural backgrounds. In these works there is scarcely a trace of the conventionalized Byzantine forms that were current in Florentine art of the immediately preceding generation. The other accepted frescoes by Giotto are scenes from the life of St. Francis, and scenes from the lives of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, respectively, in Santa Croce, Florence (after 1317). These works are so much repainted that little but the composition represents Giotto's original conception. The development they reveal in his style is toward greater monumentality. Some critics attribute to Giotto a few frescoes in the Magdalene chapel of the Lower Church of San Francisco, Assisi. Four panel paintings are generally accepted as from the hand of Giotto: a Crucifix (sacristy of the Arena Chapel,Padua) ; the Death of the Virgin (Berlin) ; the "Ognissanti" Madonna (Uffizi) ; and a panel of St. Stephen (Horne Collection, Florence). The Stigmatization of St. Francis in the Louvre bears his signature but is considered to be a product of the workshop. Giotto's activity as architect to the Florence cathedral late in life involved plans for the fa~ade (not executed), and the planning and decoration of the campanile. The execution of relief decorations of the campanile, representing the creation and works of man, has been frequently attributed to Andrea Pisano, probably from designs by Giotto. Two storeys of the tower had been built when Giotto died.

Giotto's importance to art history lies in his having introduced the major pictorial problems that European painters dealt with from his time to the twentieth century. These problems are: the convincing depiction of human (or divine) figures and actions in terms of visual and psychological reality, and, for this purpose, the representation of three-dimensional form and space on a plane surface. Giotto's solutions to these problems were appropriate to and consistent with his own genius and the demands of his time. His achievement was accomplished without accurate knowledge of linear perspective and anatomy, though the possible exploitation of these resources was implicit in his work, and was taken up by later artists. With him and his generation the- practice of imitating the formulas and conventions of other artists was replaced or at least supplemented by the study of nature in the form of models and actual landscape. The effect of these innovations was profound and instantaneous. Within a generation the Italian Romanesque and Byzantine styles were virtually wiped out, at least in Florence, and others centers rapidly followed suit. This artistic revolution would have taken place in any event, but Giotto happened to be its focal figure owing to his extraordinary technical and psychological gifts and to his location in Florence, the center of progressive thought in his time. Giotto's art is a visual expression of the humanization and secularization of thought and life that announced the Renaissance in Europe. He invested the figures and histories of the Christian religion with human emotions and dramatic force heretofore unknown in European religious art. His figures and compositions embody qualities of dignity, humility and simple monumentality that have held their own as an artistic achievement in spite of all the developments of Renaissance and later painting. The renown Giotto enjoined during his lifetime is attested to by the tributes of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and other contemporaries, and by the honors with which he was buried. His immediate following was tremendous and to a large extent anonymous, though individual hands have been singled out by connoisseurs. The two most important personalities that follow in Giotto's wake are Taddeo Gaddi and Bernardo Daddi. But the full implications of his art were not realized and carried further until they were taken up by Masaccio in the early fifteenth century.



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